Bill Graham: 20 Years Gone

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Bill Graham, on right (photo by Heinrich Klaffs, flickr)


On October 25, 1991, rock promoter Bill Graham died in a helicopter crash along with his companion Melissa Gold and pilot Steve Kahn.  To Deadheads, Bill was the costumed Father Time leading the midnight parade at legendary New Year’s Eve Dead shows.  To his rivals, he was a source of envy for the larger-than-life shadow he cast.  For me, he was the mythic figure of my rock’n’roll youth and then, my boss.

A typical San Francisco Bay Area teenager, I spent my free time in the company of friends going to concerts, and concerts in the Bay Area meant Bill Graham Presents (BGP).  The highlight of my summers were the gigantic Day On the Green concerts, multi-act all day affairs where I whiled away the endless hours spent in wait watching the BGP staff in action.  I was fascinated by the mechanics of putting on the show, and the man behind the name at the top of my ticket.  I’d read articles about Bill, and knew a little of his life.  How his widowed mother had sent him and his little sister away to a French orphanage to escape Nazi Germany.  Bill forced to leave his ailing sister behind while he was put on a ship bound for New York.  His career as an Office Manager.  The fateful day he produced a fundraiser for the S.F. Mime troupe in Golden Gate Park.  Seeing a need and finding a calling, Bill Graham Presents was born.  Bill produced rock shows in San Francisco and New York through the flower power 60s, burned out in 1971, then came back for another bite a year later and this time stayed for good.  My concert-going began ten years into his reign.

Large screen videos a few years off, bands relied on their stage presence to rock the 60,000 people in the house.  The singer projected to the third balcony and the audience responded in kind.  The event became as important as the groups on the bill, as my friends and I danced away the day fortified by sunscreen and a fresca/vodka combo only a sixteen-year old could love.  With no MTV yet on scene, the only place we could see bands was live, and the Day on the Greens exposed us to acts we’d never hear on the radio, expanding our tastes and record collections alike.

One day, the temperature in the 90s, the crowd grew hot and restless waiting for the next act.  One enterprising young man rigged a giant slingshot that launched water balloons from the back of the field high over our heads towards the stage.  As each hit got progressively closer to the mark, the crowd roared.  Then, splat!  While the crowd cheered the direct hit on the drum kit, the production minded me worried this was not helpful in getting the stage set and next act on.  As if on cue, a figure from the wings stormed out to the center mic.  “If one more god-damned water balloon hits the stage I am pulling the plug and this show is over!”.   I had never heard Bill’s voice, much less this deep-set, Bronx-accented anger blasting through the speakers.  The crowd went mute.  Bill stormed off.  The water balloons stayed grounded.  And the show went on.

What set Bill Graham apart from other rock promoters was his attention to detail, and a willingness to sacrifice some of the profit if it meant creating an event that would be that much more memorable than any other stop on the tour for audience and artist alike.  I got the sense that he and his staff worked hard, played hard and lived lives free of the 9 – 5, two weeks vacation-a-year time clock.  I wanted in.

Come college graduation, with word that BGP was building Shoreline Amphitheatre not far from my home, I made my move.  I staked out the construction site, keeping detailed notes, when one day on what to then had been a corner of mud appeared a portable trailer.  I grabbed my resume and marched up to the door.  Two weeks later I was in, hired on as chief receptionist and all-around gopher.  Two weeks after that, venue construction in the home stretch, we moved into our new office where one day a worker came by and removed the second of our office doors for painting, leaving me alone to deal with the wind-tunnel effect the lack of both doors now created.  A tornado of pink message slips filled the air and in desperation I grabbed anything and everything of weight – stapler, dictionary, foot, hand – to anchor them down.  Then the sensation of someone behind me, watching.  And suddenly I knew.  I took a quick peek.  Yup.  Bill Graham.  In the doorway hands on hips with this look of utter bemusement, kind of like the RCA dog staring at the sound coming out of the Victrola.  He gave the scene one last once over, shook his head, and disappeared down the hall.  In my head the moment continued.  Nice to meet you!  I’ve wanted to work for you all my life!  Great while it lasted!

One of basketball loving Bill’s oft repeated analogies was how he liked to hand off the ball to one of his employees and see how far they could take it.  Sitting at the reception desk I grabbed every ball that bounced by and drove it to the net.  When the office manager left after year two I took on her responsibilities.  When the Publicity Coordinator left after three I took on his.  Our season took on a regular rhythm: fresh faced in Spring, sprinting in Summer, dragging ass in Fall, then Winter renewal.

My first season on the desk provided me a close encounter with a long-standing musical crush.  Neil Young and his wife Pegi were creating a new school to educate severely handicapped kids inspired by their own experiences with their son Ben and his cerebral palsy.  To fund the school Neil gathered up some buddies to put on a show, the now annual Bridge School Benefit Concert.  Included on the bill Bruce Springsteen, just off the road from his “Born in the USA” tour and still adjusting to his newly attained rank of “Su-per-star”.

The day before the show our General Manager called us in letting us know Bruce had decided to do a private soundcheck that very evening and no one not a soul was to set foot outside the office doors until he had come and gone. Cut to later that night, the entire staff pulled into the Box Office to help finish stuffing 15,000 tickets into the ticket envelopes, when through the open back door came floating in: that voice.  “One, two, test test”.  We force ourselves back to work.  Then a strum of guitar reverberated through the P.A., its slow’n’sexy opening beat unmistakable.  Bruce’s vocals began.  “I’m driving in my car, I turn on the radio…cause when we kiss, fire.”  My friend and I lock eyes.  In the rest room we debate the pros and cons, the faint opening chords to “Thunder Road” settling all.

We dash into the front office, crack open the door, then sprint for the seats.  At the sound of an approaching golfcart we plaster ourselves against the wall.  The head of security whizzes past.   Needing to keep a lower profile we hit the ground and crawl across the concourse like demented crabs, Bruce’s voice growing louder clearer, calling us home.  We continue our crab crawl into the seating area in between two rows then lie flat.  Not daring to peek we are content with proximity, drinking in the wonderment of our own private show.  Then a flashlight in our face.  “Hey, you’re not supposed to be in here!”.  And like the Roadrunner we were up and off, not stopping to catch breath until the relative safety of the restroom’s reached.  A few moments of muffled hysteria, we oh-so-casually return to the Box Office and back to envelopes where we’re greeted by a round of suspect looks for our twenty-minute pee break.

Bill Graham, Halloween, 1987 (photo by the bridge / flickr)


Bill believed in the personal touch, and made a point of being at each of his shows if he was in town.  It was his name on the ticket and he wanted to give each musician his personal thanks, and each audience his personal mark on quality control.  With BGP often producing shows held on the same nights, Bill looked for a way to get from one to another faster, finally leasing a helicopter.  For the Shoreline shows he mostly drove himself, and if he stayed until the end of the show he was trapped until the parking lots cleared and the route to the freeway opened.   On those nights Bill would come up and hang in the Box Office, grab some food, maybe go over the numbers.  Then he’d come into the reception area and settle into the chair by the door, his gold ring with the thick “BG” initials on one hand, the exquisite watch set to two time zones on the other, and look out at the sea of red lights streaming out of the lots.

He’d turn and survey the room.   Me at the reception desk.  The House Manager typing up incident reports.  Other staff here and there.  Then he’d begin.  An anecdote from backstage, a progress report on the next leg of the Amnesty International tour, the current DefCon level between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.  When he told stories he sprang alive, his voice carrying echoes of his German beginning, his tongue wrestling certain words on their way out.  His hands flew, his face danced and we sat, soaking up the pages of rock history brought alive, just for us.

By year four, there wasn’t much magic happening on Shoreline’s stage to match Bill’s stories.  We had started to sell out shows featuring acts who didn’t have a clue how to put on a show.  They looked the part, the pre-recorded vocals and musical accompaniment helped them sound the part, but my window filled nightly with people bored to tears.  The main culprit for this sorry crop of under performers?  MTV.  With the arrival of music video came the rise of the Video Star, able to leap atop the musical charts in a single bound with the aid of some fancy footwork, camera work and photogenic curves.  Millions of records sold, legions of fans borne without our Video Star ever having put a foot on stage.

The Record Company’s solution?  To surround the Video Star in lights, cameras, and action.  Anything to keep the audience focused on the spectacle and far away from the fact the star of the show exhibited all the stage presence of a well-lit muppet.  Before MTV, a band made it to the touring top by working their way up, from garage band to party band, nightclub to theatre, arena to coliseum.  By the time they stepped on a stadium stage in front of 60,000 fans they knew how to rock the house.  The synthetic perfection of these news acts’ stagecraft entertained, but it rarely moved, resulting in career lifespans measured in the single digits.

As year five began Shoreline was up and running to growing acclaim, and I took pride in my part in getting the venue to the top.  I set my sights on a new horizon, and headed out on the road as Assistant Tour Manager for the Steve Miller Band.  I did time on the other side of the production line, saw every rock promoter in action, and came away unimpressed by their singular focus on the dotted line: how much money at stake and how big their take, little interest in the particulars of how the show was run or audience treated.  There was a change going on in the music industry, and it didn’t blow good.

Huge corporate entities buying out whole tours, squeezing out local promoters, jacking up ticket prices.  It’d all left me a bit discouraged, and with renewed appreciation for the magic BGP was still able to create, for audience and artist alike.  As I sat single in my double bed enjoying the ministrations of the hotel mini-bar, I grabbed my yellow pad and began a letter to Bill.  Putting into words what he had meant to me, what the company had meant.  While Bill knew my name and knew my work, I could count on one hand the number of direct conversations we’d had.  I was always a little in awe of the guy.  As the tour continued from town to town I’d add more to the letter, and on my return, give it to Bill.

My home now Seattle, I’d been back about a month when I finalized plans to fly down for the Bridge School concert, checking to verify Bill would be in town because I wanted to hand-deliver his letter, now almost done.  A couple days later my answering machine showed one message received.  I hit rewind, turned up the volume, and learned the horrible news.

Bill had gone to see Huey Lewis at his Concord Pavilion show.  The helicopter flight over a harrowing one as they flew through a storm, there’d been discussion backstage about them driving back instead.  But the storm had quieted by the time they were ready to leave, the weather reports showed a clear flight, and the three took off and out of sight.  As the band played on there was a sudden power fluctuation on stage.  Band and staff exchanged looks of “what was that?”.

After Bill’s helicopter took off it flew from clear weather into a squall.  The pilot dipped down to follow the lights of the road and flew into an unmarked power transformer.  The power fluctuation back at the show was the moment the helicopter hit the tower, the moment Bill, Steve and Melissa lost their lives.


The winter before, I’d come down to San Francisco to cover the desk of a Booking Department assistant away on vacation.  The three BGP bookers had adjacent offices with large clear sliding windows kept open to allow them to banter back and forth while they worked the phones and cut the deals.  The head booker’s office abutted Bill’s large corner office, the door of which was almost always open, his booming voice the soundtrack to our day.

My last day on the desk Bill came gliding in as if on a cloud of joy, buoyed by his morning spent in Los Angeles.  He had recently won an acting role he’d coveted, that of mobster Lucky Luciano in the Barry Levinson and Warren Beatty film “Bugsy”, and was just back from his first wardrobe fitting.  Work went on hold as he regaled us with stories, his body acting out each player, our laughter fueling him on.  I‘d never seen him so happy.  I realized the next time I’d see him would be at the Bridge School concert after he’d wrapped the film, and hoped to hear the next round of stories then.

After he’d settled in from his morning in L.A., Bill called out to his assistant to get Phil Collins on the line.  Once on, he began to berate Phil for the deal he and Genesis were about to strike with American Express, a scheme whereby card holders would have exclusive rights to the best seats in the house at a premium price.  Bill pleaded with Phil to see how unfair this was to the fans, what a horrible precedent it was setting to divide the audience into the haves and have nots.  Bill lost the argument, but never gave up the fight.


On my last night as an official member of the Shoreline staff, my friends threw me a post-show party in the outdoor bar.  Beer flowed as “This is Spinal Tap” played on the monitors above.  It was freezing so I ducked into the front office to grab a blanket.  The Production Manager sat in his office finishing paperwork and out his window I saw Bill’s car parked in its usual spot.

“What’s Bill still doing here, the lots cleared out a half-hour ago?”  The Production Manager just smiled, and kept on crunching numbers.  I shrugged and ran back to my party and the eagerly awaited Nigel Tufnel magic amplifier that goes to “eleven”.  A little later the front office door opened and out came Bill heading for the bar.  Heading…straight for me.

I got up to meet him.  He took my hand.  “If we have to lose you to someone I’m glad it’s Steve Miller.  He’s good people, and he’ll treat you right.”  I can’t remember what he said after that cause all I could think was: Bill Graham stayed to say good-bye to me.  The binocular framed figure of my youth standing there before me, smiling at me.  He turned and disappeared back inside.  I waved away my friends’ looks of “way to go!” while secretly basking in their glow.  A few moments later Bill’s Jaguar convertible moved through the parking lot into the night.  There was so much I had wanted to say to him, but as we stood there face to face all I could get out was: “Thank you.  Thank you.”

As I could often better express my feelings in writing than in person I took comfort in the thought that someday, some day soon, I’ll write him a letter.




Special Note #1: Should any of my former BGP compatriots happen by, I’d really like to retain my online pseudonymity and appreciate you using “rosalind”.  cheers!

Special Note #2:  The Bridge School has just released a 25th Anniversary Bridge School Benefit concert CD & DVD.  The shows have produced truly magical moments, many captured on these discs.  Proceeds go to a great, great cause.  More info here.

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